In small-town Texas, speeding drivers keep the lights on at city hall

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Texas towns rely more heavily on fines as an income source than their counterparts in most other states. In some towns, such levies — including forfeitures and traffic tickets — account for over half of the budget.

If you live in Palmer, Texas, on I-45 south of Dallas, your lead foot, aggressive driving or other scofflaw behavior by fellow citizens and visitors ensures the town stays afloat financially. According to research from Governing magazine, 51 percent of the town’s $1.2 million budget comes from ticket and fine revenue.

Further south and farther off the beaten track, Buckholts, has a population of 520. But authorities in the little town levied $182,569 in fines in 2018, an average of $350 a resident. That income made up 73 percent of the town’s budget.

Still, the Buckholtsian bureaucrats are pikers compared to Estelline, 100 miles southeast of Amarillo, where for over a decade motorists have complained of getting snared by a speed trap. 

In 2016, the town of 133 people derived 84 percent of its revenue from tickets and fines, a tidy $3,580 per resident.

When a town’s budget is small, every dollar has an impact, said Ronald Spriggs, Estelline’s former city attorney.

“They can call these places speed traps if they want, or make a problem [about the town] depending on tickets, but the only thing a town has to protect its citizens sometimes is to write tickets,” Spriggs said.

You can’t write the tickets, he added, unless someone is speeding.

The Governing magazine report covered all states and included fines, punitive fees, other court revenues and forfeitures, which is generally property that is seized due to alleged unlawful acts.

But it’s the ticketing that arouses the most ire from the public, although income from ticket-related offenses also includes drug tests, court costs, and probation assessments.

The report calculated the degree to which the towns relied on such income, using state data and financial statements from the towns. 

Texas was near the top in the number of towns collecting outsized fines, along with Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Oklahoma and New York. It topped the list in fine income per resident. In Texas, 147 municipalities reported annual revenues exceeding $100 for every adult resident. Second was Georgia with 87. The study included 840 municipalities around the country.

It’s not just remote towns that lean heavily on fines. Areas surrounding Dallas, Houston and Austin make up the bulk of the towns with double-digit reliance on fines and fees. The majority of the towns in that group are very small, with less than 5,000 residents.

Among the hundreds of towns noted in the report’s interactive map as depending heavily on fines, many also show up on various websites that list Texas speed traps.

A state law passed in 1995 prohibits law enforcement agencies from requiring or pressuring officers to issue a certain quota of tickets, but that law was easier to pass than enforce.

Since the passage of the law, judges and cops have come forward to say that quotas still exist. The town of Marlin fired its city manager in March after he allegedly suggested to the town’s police chief that he impose a ticket quota to help boost the budget.

Some smaller municipalities, lacking a property tax base, reluctant to raise taxes and strapped by poor management, become dependent on the fine and fee revenue.

Like several other states, Texas has a cap on ticket revenue that can be retained by municipalities, requiring the excess to be turned over to the state.

Towns with under 5,000 population can keep traffic fine money equal to 30 percent of the previous year’s total revenue, said Kevin Lyons, a spokesman for the state comptroller’s office.

Income to the state as a result of that rule fluctuates, ranging from $250,000 in 2015 to $85,000 in 2018. The state does not track complete revenue data for municipalities but releases an annual report on court revenue by jurisdiction.

Towns have found ways to circumvent the law, said Pat Monks, a Houston-based attorney and a director of the Traffic Lawyers of Texas, an association created to advocate for issues related to traffic policing and prosecution.

“It takes an audit to find out when [withholding] is being done,” Monks said.

Police groups and cities insist traffic tickets are all about safety, he said. “But all you have to do is look at the citations and where they write them. They aren’t about safety.”

Although the law prohibiting ticket quotas took effect 22 years ago, there is still no enforcement mechanism, said Aren Cambre, a Dallas-area blogger and Southern Methodist University adjunct professor who did his dissertation on the relationship between traffic enforcement and vehicle crash frequency.

“There’s no enforcement on the remittance after a town goes over the 30 percent figure,” Cambre said. “It’s a voluntary remittance, and you never know what’s going on unless you pull the ticket data through open records.“

Traffic ticket hawks can also pull the data from the comptroller’s office for revenue generated by town. When Jack Curtis got a $210 speeding ticket in Estelline in 2012, he found some revealing data.

It showed that the town for that year pulled in $12,354 per resident through its municipal court.

So he paid $3,700 for a billboard outside of town to warn drivers of Estelline’s practices. The sign featured a Barney Fife cartoon and the words in red letters, “Warning! Estelline is a speed trap!”

He paid to keep it up a year; donors paid another $1,800 to keep it up an additional six months, he said.

Curtis is not surprised the town is still collecting outsized fines.

“But by now, you know it’s not about safety,” Curtis said. “Maybe they can try some new streetlights, some speed bumps.”

Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].

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